The term ‘referral traffic’ is used to describe the process whereby someone is on another website, they click a link on that website to your website, and they end up on your website.
Because the referring site can often be tracked, you can say that the traffic was from a referral.
Referral is generally seen as a free channel.
Referral traffic in analytics
Some analytics packages allow you to ‘tag’ a link so that it shows up as a referral in the analytics.
For example, in Google Analytics you can add additional parameters to the link so that Google Analytics always marks the link as a referral.
Note that clicks through to your website from search engines, PPC, Facebook and so forth are not classified as referral traffic.
Referral traffic comes essentially from non-search engine sources and non-social media sites. Such sites include forums, blogs, personal sites, supplier’s websites and so forth.
Referral traffic can affect search ranking
You can seek referral traffic to boost general traffic and sales but it also plays a part in Google’s PageRank system.
For example, if overnight an authority website such as www.bbc.com were to insert a link on their home page to your website and referred traffic, this would generally have a positive impact on your organic search engine listing and traffic.
Conclusion: referral traffic then and now
Referral as a channel was an area that was sought after to a greater extent from 2000 to 2010 as it was seen as a core way to market.
However, as Google’s algorithms improved — and as the ability to reach customers consistently through other channels increased — the referral channel has sometimes taken more of a back seat in digital marketing.
Despite this, in concentrated form, the concept of referral is not to be overlooked. This is especially true when referring links are placed on sites of key influencers.